TIME Congress

House Approves VA Health Care Overhaul

Veterans Affairs Secretary nominee Robert McDonald of Ohio is sworn in during a Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee hearings to examine his nomination to be Secretary of Veterans Affairs on Capitol Hill in Washington on July 22, 2014.
Veterans Affairs Secretary nominee Robert McDonald of Ohio is sworn in during a Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee hearings to examine his nomination to be Secretary of Veterans Affairs on Capitol Hill in Washington on July 22, 2014. AP

(WASHINGTON) — The House overwhelmingly approved a landmark bill Wednesday to refurbish the Veterans Affairs Department and improve veterans’ health care.

The 420-5 vote sends the bill to the Senate, where approval is expected by Friday.

The $16.3 billion measure is intended help veterans avoid long waits for health care, hire more doctors and nurses to treat them and make firing senior executives at the VA easier.

The measure includes $10 billion in emergency spending to help veterans who can’t get prompt appointments with VA doctors to obtain outside care; $5 billion to hire doctors, nurses and other medical staff and about $1.3 billion to lease 27 new clinics across the country.

The House vote came one day after the Senate confirmed former Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald to lead the sprawling agency, which provides health care to nearly 9 million enrolled veterans and disability compensation to nearly 4 million veterans.

McDonald, 61, of Cincinnati, will replace Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson, who took over in May after Eric Shinseki resigned amid a growing uproar over reports of long veterans’ waits for health care and VA workers falsifying records to cover up delays.

McDonald has pledged to transform the VA and promised that “systematic failures” must be addressed. He said improving patient access to health care was a top priority, along with restoring transparency, accountability and integrity to the VA.

Congressional budget analysts estimated the bill would cost about $16.3 billion over three years, slightly less than a $17 billion estimate provided by the bill’s sponsors.

The bill is expected to add $10 billion to the federal deficit over 10 years after cost-savings such as changes in a veterans’ retirement program and reimbursements by insurance companies are included, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said the reform bill was urgently needed in the wake of what he called “the biggest scandal in the history of the Department of Veterans Affairs.”

While the bill’s cost is steep, it is needed to ensure that veterans receive proper care, Miller said.

“The VA has caused this problem and one of the ways that we can help solve it is to give veterans a choice, a choice to stay in the system or a choice to go out of the system” to get government-paid health care from a private doctor, he said.

“No veteran should be forced to wait for the health care or benefits they have earned,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., adding that the bipartisan bill “will help us serve our veterans as well as they have served us.”

Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the second-ranking Democrat in the House, said he was concerned about a provision in the bill that makes it easier to fire senior executives judged to be negligent or underperforming. Hoyer, whose suburban Washington district includes thousands of government workers, said the bill “undermines civil service protections that have been in place for decades.”

Existing protections “strike the right balance between giving agencies the authority to remove personnel without trampling on the due process rights of (senior) employees that they need to do their job without fear of political reprisal or arbitrary removal,” Hoyer said.

The VA has been rocked in recent months by reports of patients dying while awaiting treatment and mounting evidence that workers falsified or omitted appointment schedules to mask frequent, long delays. In many cases, high-ranking officials received bonuses for meeting performance goals that later proved to be based on false information.

The compromise measure would require the VA to pay private doctors to treat qualifying veterans who can’t get prompt appointments at the VA’s nearly 1,000 hospitals and outpatient clinics, or those who live at least 40 miles from one of them. Only veterans who are enrolled in VA care as of Aug. 1 or live at least 40 miles away would be eligible to get outside care.

The proposed restrictions are important in controlling costs for the program. Congressional budget analysts had projected that tens of thousands of veterans who currently are not treated by the VA would likely seek VA care if they could see a private doctor paid for by the government.

TIME Military

Senate Confirms McDonald as VA Secretary

(WASHINGTON) — The Senate on Tuesday unanimously confirmed former Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald as the new Veterans Affairs secretary, with a mission to overhaul an agency beleaguered by long veterans’ waits for health care and VA workers falsifying records to cover up delays.

McDonald, 61, of Cincinnati, will replace Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson, who took over in May after Eric Shinseki resigned.

McDonald has pledged to transform the VA and promised that “systematic failures” must be addressed. He said improving patient access to health care is a top priority, along with restoring transparency, accountability and integrity to the VA.

The 97-0 vote to confirm McDonald comes as Congress appears poised to approve a $17 billion compromise bill to overhaul the VA.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said it was important that Congress act on the reform bill as quickly as possible in order “to give Mr. McDonald and his team the resources they need to ensure American veterans are getting the care we’ve promised them.”

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said McDonald “has a tough job ahead of him,” but said that if McDonald “is willing to work in a collaborative and open manner with Congress, he will find a constructive partner on this side of the aisle.”

House and Senate negotiators have approved the VA bill, which is intended to help veterans avoid long waits for health care, hire more doctors and nurses to treat them, and make it easier to fire executives at VA. The vote by the 28-member conference committee late Monday sends the bill to the full House and Senate, where approval is expected later this week.

The measure includes $10 billion in emergency spending to help veterans who can’t get prompt appointments with VA doctors to obtain outside care; $5 billion to hire doctors, nurses and other medical staff; and about $1.5 billion to lease 27 new clinics across the country.

Florida Rep. Jeff Miller, who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who chairs the Senate panel, say the bill will require about $12 billion in new spending after accounting for about $5 billion in unspecified spending cuts from the VA’s budget.

Despite the steep cost, Miller said he is confident he can sell the bill to fellow Republicans, including tea party members.

“Taking care of our veterans is not an inexpensive proposition, and our members understand that,” Miller said Monday. “The VA has caused this problem and one of the ways that we can help solve it is to give veterans a choice, a choice to stay in the system or a choice to go out of the system” to get government-paid health care from a private doctor.

Pressed on the point by reporters, Miller said there will be “an educational process that will have to take place” before the House votes on the compromise plan later this week. “Obviously some of our members will need a little more educating than others.”

Rep. Tim Huelskamp., R-Kan., a tea party favorite and a member of the House veterans panel, said “throwing money at the VA won’t solve their problem,” adding that “a fundamental change in culture and real leadership from the president on down is the only way to provide the quality, timely care our veterans deserve.”

Sanders, for his part, said funding for veterans should be considered as a cost of war, paid for through emergency spending.

“Planes and tanks and guns are a cost of war. So is taking care of the men and women who fight our battles,” he said.

Miller and Sanders both predicted passage of the bill by the end of the week, when Congress is set to leave town for a five-week recess.

If approved by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama, the veterans’ bill would be one of the few significant bills signed into law this year.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Obama welcomes the bipartisan deal as “much-needed reforms that need to be implemented.”

The White House is especially pleased that the bill includes emergency spending “to provide VA the additional resources necessary to deliver timely, high-quality care to veterans through a strengthened VA system,” Earnest said.

The VA has been rocked by reports of patients dying while awaiting treatment and mounting evidence that workers falsified or omitted appointment schedules to mask frequent, long delays. The resulting election-year firestorm forced VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign in late May.

The compromise measure would require the VA to pay private doctors to treat qualifying veterans who can’t get prompt appointments at the VA’s nearly 1,000 hospitals and outpatient clinics, or those who live at least 40 miles from one of them. Only veterans who are enrolled in VA care as of Aug. 1 or live at least 40 miles away would be eligible to get outside care.

The proposed restrictions are important in controlling costs for the program. Congressional budget analysts had projected that tens of thousands of veterans who currently are not treated by the VA would likely seek VA care if they could see a private doctor paid for by the government.

TIME Military

Tentative Deal Reached on VA Reform

Conference Committee Held For Veterans Affairs Reform Bill
Sen. Bernie Sanders, Chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol July 24, 2014 in Washington, DC. Win McNamee—Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) — The chairmen of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees have reached a tentative agreement on a plan to fix a veterans’ health program scandalized by long patient wait times and falsified records covering up delays.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., scheduled a news conference Monday to talk about a compromise plan to improve veterans’ care.

Miller chairs the House veterans panel, while Sanders chairs the Senate panel.

A spokesman for Sanders said Sunday the men have reached a tentative agreement. The deal requires a vote by a conference committee of House and Senate negotiators, and votes in the full House and Senate.

Miller and Sanders said in a joint statement that they “made significant progress” over the weekend toward agreement on legislation to reform the Veterans Affairs Department, which has been rocked by reports of patients dying while awaiting VA treatment and mounting evidence that workers falsified or omitted appointment schedules to mask frequent, long delays. The resulting election-year firestorm forced VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign in late May.

The plan set to be announced Monday is intended to “make VA more accountable and to help the department recruit more doctors, nurses and other health care professionals,” Miller and Sanders said.

Few details of the agreement were released, but the bill is expected to authorize billions in emergency spending to lease 27 new clinics, hire more doctors and nurses and make it easier for veterans who can’t get prompt appointments with VA doctors to get outside care.

Louis Celli, legislative director for the American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans group, said the deal would provide crucial help to veterans who have been waiting months or even years for VA health care.

“There is an emergency need to get veterans off the waiting lists. That’s what this is all about,” Celli said Sunday.

An updated audit by the VA this month showed that about 10 percent of veterans seeking medical care at VA hospitals and clinics still have to wait at least 30 days for an appointment. About 46,000 veterans have had to wait at least three months for initial appointments, the report said, and an additional 7,000 veterans who asked for appointments over the past decade never got them.

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson has said the VA is making improvements, but said veterans in many communities still are waiting too long to receive needed care. The VA provides health care to nearly 9 million enrolled veterans.

A veteran died last month after collapsing in an Albuquerque, New Mexico, veterans hospital cafeteria. The man waited 30 minutes for an ambulance, officials said.

Sanders proposed a bill last week that would cost about $25 billion over three years. Miller countered with a plan to approve $10 billion in emergency spending, with a promise of more spending in future years under the normal congressional budget process.

Miller’s bill would keep most of the provisions in a Senate-passed bill and would authorize about $100 million for the Veterans Affairs Department to address shortfalls in the current budget year.

Both bills cost significantly less than bills approved last month by the House and Senate.

Negotiations had appeared in jeopardy Thursday after Miller and Sanders announced their competing plans, then held separate news conferences lashing out at each other. The men resumed talks in private Thursday night.

The House and Senate are set to adjourn at the end of the week until early September, and lawmakers from both parties have said completing a bill on veterans’ health care is a top priority.

The Senate is expected to vote this week to confirm former Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald as the new VA secretary, replacing Gibson.

TIME politics

Veterans Affairs Needs to Get a Clue About PTSD Treatment

Veterans
Iraq war veteran Zach Choate, 26, leads a group of veterans to a rally on the steps of Russell Building to call for a end to the redeployment of troops who have diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Choate was redeployed while still recovering from wounds inflicted by an IED. Tom Williams—CQ-Roll Call,Inc.

Some medical centers may have a goldmine of PTSD data, which could help improve treatment. If only the department could get its act together.

Both the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs spend huge sums every year to treat post-traumatic stress disorder: $294 million and more than $3 billion, respectively, in 2012. But does the treatment help? According to a new congressionally mandated, 300-page report from the Institute of Medicine, neither the Pentagon nor the VA—the two agencies responsible for providing PTSD treatment to soldiers and veterans—have a clue.

The investigating committee found “spikes of excellence in both departments,” said its chairman, Sandro Galea of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. It also identified “tremendous variability in how care is implemented and an absence of data that tell us if programs are working or not.” Overall, the modest data that do appear in the IOM report are not particularly encouraging.

Members of the expert panel visited some of the VA’s Specialized Intensive PTSD Programs, or SIPPs, which are inpatient or residential programs of up to four months. They reviewed the results of all 39 such programs during 2012 and found that, after four months of treatment, the average patient still qualified for a diagnosis of PTSD.

This isn’t entirely surprising. The VA learned in the 1990s that their 16-week specialty inpatient programs were ineffective, and closed them down. Under political pressure in the 2000s, they started them up again.

But there might be good news—if only we could demonstrate it. After all, the majority of PTSD patients in the VA are not treated in inpatient or residential settings, but as outpatients. Presumably, these patients are better off than those referred to intensive programs.

So how do they fare? Are they better able to benefit from state of the art cognitive-behavioral therapies, such as prolonged exposure and cognitive processing? Clinicians routinely use these interventions to good effect in treating PTSD among civilians. We have every reason to expect that, in most cases, these therapies–in conjunction with psychotherapy and couples or family therapy or medication—have indeed helped veterans.

In any case, the IOM says there are no data. Well, not quite. While not reliably collected across the entire VA health system, there is some tracking information on treatment outcomes. For several years, the VA has required clinicians in every VA medical center to complete a PTSD Checklist (PCL) for each patient every 90 days. The PCL provides a total symptom severity score.

This enables clinicians to track changes in symptoms and establish the optimal frequency of therapy sessions, according to Ron Acierno, former director of the PTSD Clinical Team at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston, S.C. Acierno and his team conducted routine PCLs, though how consistently and completely the surveys were administered at other VA medical centers is unknown.

In medical centers that do comply with the VA mandate to collect PCLs, there may well be a small goldmine of data to be excavated. With this information, we could answer immediate questions about the improvement of veterans’ symptoms and functioning. We could begin to learn what kinds of outcomes we see for younger veterans of the post-9/11 era and Vietnam veterans whose wartime experience is now several decades ago. Yes, Vietnam veterans are very much in the picture as new PTSD patients. One out of every three new patients in 2012 in the VA’s specialized PTSD programs was a Vietnam-era veteran, according to the IOM–even though they last saw military service decades ago.

We could also examine differences in response to treatment between active duty personnel and veterans. Our colleagues tell us, impressionistically, that men and women still in the service are, in general, more motivated than the patients they have treated in the VA. That’s because the culture of the military mental health system aims to help soldiers resume participation, while the VA’s current disability policies often reinforce illness roles and inadvertently pose disincentives to work and recovery because compensation is contingent upon the severity of PTSD.

In establishing PTSD Awareness Day, the Senate resolved to “help ensure that those suffering from the invisible wounds of war receive proper treatment.”

In some, though not all VAs, they do. Now the mission is to ensure quality care is widespread, and to learn whether treatment is helping, who benefits most (and least) and why. Veterans with PTSD deserve the best care possible; accountability is critical to seeing that they get it.

C. Bartley Frueh is chair of the social sciences division at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. Sally Satel is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Both are former VA clinicians.

TIME Veterans

2 Veterans Affairs Officials Resign in Scandal’s Wake

Following Eric Shinseki's resignation

The Department of Veterans Affairs said Wednesday that two senior officials are stepping down next week as the agency looks to rebound from a scandal over concealing long wait times for veterans to get care.

The VA said the resignation of Will A. Gunn, the current General Counsel, and the replacement of Dr. Robert Jesse, the acting Under Secretary for Health, are “aimed at accelerating Veterans’ access to quality health care and rebuilding the trust of America’s Veterans.”

Jesse served as principal deputy under secretary for health beginning in 2010. In May, he assumed the new position amid reports veterans weren’t receiving adequate care. On July 2, Dr. Carolyn Clancy, who has been at the VA since 2013, will replace him.

“Dr. Carolyn Clancy is a leader and a real innovator when it comes to Veterans’ health care quality and safety,” Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson in a statement. “As we conduct our search for an Under Secretary for Health, there’s no one better to take on the issues we face. Dr. Clancy will be charged with the Department’s top priority – getting Veterans off of wait lists and in to see their doctors.”

Gunn’s resignation goes into effect July 3 when he will be replaced by the current principal deputy general counsel Tammy Kennedy. Gibson also announced that Dr. Jonathan Perlin, who served as the undersecretary for health under President George W. Bush, would be returning as a senior advisor to the Acting Secretary.

“We’re pleased to welcome this exceptional leader back to VA,” Gibson added. “I look forward to the contributions of Dr. Perlin who is recognized for his national healthcare leadership roles, as part of the VA team as we continue our work towards accelerating access to care and rebuilding trust with Veterans.”

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki under fire in May.

“The only way today’s VA personnel actions can be viewed as positive developments is if the department fills the vacancies with leaders who put veterans first—not the VA bureaucracy—focus on solving problems instead of downplaying or hiding them, and understand that taxpayer funded organizations such as VA have a responsibility to provide information to Congress and the public rather than stonewalling them,” Florida Republican Rep. Jeff Miller, who chairs the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said in a statement.

TIME

Sanders and McCain Introduce VA Reform Bill

Sens. Bernie Sanders and John McCain introduced a far-reaching Veterans Affairs reform bill Monday

Lawmakers are beating the drums of reform to the Veterans Affairs Department, on the heels of another scathing report released by the agency Monday.

The bipartisan bill crafted by Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) would fund construction of 26 new medical facilities and set up ways to make it easier for veterans to seek private care if they do not live near a VA medical facility. The bill would also improve the access to health care for victims of military sexual assault. Democratic Senate leadership said they would like to vote on the legislation this week, an aide tells TIME.

The House Republican leadership has pushed for its own legislation, which passed on a large bipartisan vote last month. That bill would give the VA secretary greater authority to fire or demote poor-performing senior officials.

The newly-introduced Senate bill comes hours after a third Veterans Affairs Department internal audit on Monday, which announced that more than 57,000 veterans have been waiting 90 days or more for their first medical appointments. This audit of the agency’s 731 medical centers found that 13% of schedulers were told by their superiors to doctor schedules to make wait times look shorter. The agency found its 14-day scheduling target unrealistic and will scrap it from employee performance contracts.

The VA wait list scandal led its Secretary, Eric Shinseki, to step down May 30.

TIME White House

Obama Marks Memorial Day With Call for Better Veteran Care

Barack Obama Veterans Memorial Day
U.S. President Barack Obama and Major General Jeffrey Buchanan participate in a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. on May 26, 2014. Drew Angerer—EPA

Obama, whose administration is currently investigating allegations that Veterans Affairs facilities delayed care for needy veterans, said better support was needed for those who had fought for their country

President Barack Obama paid tribute to America’s fallen members of the armed forces at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on Monday to mark the Memorial Day holiday.

Obama, who returned hours earlier from a surprise visit to troops in Afghanistan, pledged again to end the war there by the end of the year and called for better support for America’s veterans, a nod to the recent troubles that have plagued the Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, who has faced calls to resign since it emerged that VA medical facilities had reportedly falsified records to cover up long waits for care, was in attendance.

“We must do more to keep faith with our veterans and their families,” the President said. Those who had fought for their country, he added, must “get the care and benefits they’ve earned and deserve.”

Obama stopped short of directly addressing the issue, but in an interview airing Monday afternoon with CNN, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the idea of veterans on secret waiting lists being denied care “makes me sick to my stomach.”

“Because it is a clear responsibility we have as a country, as a people, to take care of these men and women and their families who sacrificed so much,” said Hagel, who still backs Shinseki. “Let’s see what happened, why it happened, how it happened. Then we’ve got to fix it.”

At Arlington National Cemetery on Monday, Obama also repeated his statement made in Afghanistan on Sunday that the U.S. was at a “pivotal moment” in Afghanistan, reiterating his pledge to pull out most troops by the end of the year.

“By the end of this year, our war in Afghanistan will finally come to an end,” he said.

Obama spoke at Arlington on its 150th anniversary, and harked back to its creation amid the Civil War.

“We declared upon this hill a final resting place for those willing to lay down their lives for the country they loved,” he said.

TIME U.S.

What the VA Did for My Sick Husband

182057792
RodrigoBlanco—Getty Images/Vetta

Amid scrutiny and furor over misconduct at the government agency, a widow gives thanks to the employees who cared for her husband in his last years.

Two weeks ago my husband of 51 years, Joe, died in his room at the William E. Christoffersen Salt Lake Veterans Home at age 87. He had served in the Navy from 1941 to 1946 and was a proud veteran.

Like others, I am deeply concerned by reports of delayed treatment for our veterans. Indeed, when I was receiving cancer treatments in 2011 and could no longer care for Joe at home, we had to wait nearly a month before a room became available in a VA facility.

But this is not a story of disappointment. It is instead one of deep gratitude for the extraordinary professional and personal care Joe received over the next three years. Of course we must not excuse those who betray their responsibilities to our veterans and our country, but we must also remember and celebrate the legion of VA employees who provide outstanding care to our veterans, day in and day out.

As Joe’s physical strength waned and vascular dementia sapped his memory, VA doctors, nurses and aides were alert to his medical needs. Time and again they took him to the VA hospital for tests, diagnosis and treatment.

More unexpected were the countless ways in which their thoughtfulness helped Joe and our entire family. Every veteran was treated with the greatest respect, even when he or she was being difficult. For example, at first Joe didn’t understand why he couldn’t come home with me and became angry whenever I left him. The staff always took him aside to provide comfort and tell him I would be back soon.

These small personal kindnesses made such a difference.

To the extent possible, Joe and other patients were encouraged to continue a normal life. Many activities and facilities were available at the nursing home, but patients were not confined there. There were outings of all sorts, such as professional sporting events, fishing, horse riding, shopping at a local store and short road trips to see the fall leaves—even after Joe was confined to a wheelchair.

Our family was allowed to visit any time of day or night, and staff would place a call for Joe whenever he wanted to talk to us. When he could no longer come home for the day, special dinners were scheduled at holidays so we could celebrate together. It was the little things that mattered the most, and they were the most unexpected.

What turned out to be Joe’s last treat took place the afternoon before his death. By then he was in hospice care, but did not realize that his status had changed. A nurse noticed that he seemed down and asked what would make him happy. He said he wanted a Coca-Cola and a Snickers bar. She pushed his wheelchair so they could fetch them, then brought him back with her to the nurses’ station, where they visited while he indulged in this special snack.

It is difficult to leave a loved one’s side once you know that the final stages of life are here. But we knew that no matter how suddenly Joe’s final decline might be, there was no danger that he would die alone. The staff made sure that someone would always be with any patient who was approaching death so that this would never happen, and that was reassuring for us. As it turned out, the doctor was able to gather most of his family in time to be with Joe as he slipped away. The last three of us, our daughter and son and myself, whose planes from Illinois, Arkansas and Texas did not get us to the nursing home until many hours after his death. The staff had kept Joe in his room to await us. The chaplain, who had come to work for a normal day, stayed until midnight so that she could comfort us after we said our goodbyes. Only then did the mortician take Joe’s body.

A final tradition, so touching that it brings tears to my eyes as I write, is that whenever a veteran dies, his caregivers line the halls to offer their salute and play “Taps” as his flag-draped body departs.

In our case, there was a postscript. Joe had greatly admired the black Converse sneakers of two of the aides. Many times he sought to purchase them from one or the other, once offering a dollar he’d won at Bingo as payment. Although they always declined, the aides decided to surprise Joe by purchasing a pair for him out of their own funds. But the parcel arrived a few hours too late. When I urged them to return the $60 shoes for a refund, they declined, saying they were meant for Joe. Although most mourners at his funeral didn’t realize it, Joe wore his new black sneakers to the grave.

Sandra Collard has five children, fourteen grandchildren and three great grandchildren. Her husband Joe served honorably in the U.S. Navy during World War II.

TIME Veterans

VA Chief Eric Shinseki (Still) Must Go

Eric Shinseki
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki pauses while testifying before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing to examine the state of Veterans Affairs health care on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 15, 2014. Cliff Owen—AP

The VA is broken. It’s past time to fix this shameful bureaucratic tragedy

Back at the turn of the 21st century, when he left Washington to become president of the New School university in New York City, former Senator Bob Kerrey learned a little something about the ethos of Veterans Affairs. Kerrey, a Medal of Honor recipient who lost part of a leg in Vietnam, needed to get his home address changed. He had called his bank and settled the matter in 10 minutes. He called the VA and spoke to a hostile and not very helpful receptionist. He spoke to the receptionist’s supervisor, who told him, “You’re going to have to come in.” So Kerrey went to the VA office in New York. The receptionist again wasn’t very helpful. Kerrey pointed out that he was only talking about an address change. The receptionist said, “Talk to one of them,” pointing to customer “service” employees sitting at desks labeled A and B. Desk C was vacant. Kerrey went to Desk A, where he was told, “That’s handled by Desk C.” Kerrey asked when the occupant of Desk C was returning. “I don’t know,” said Desk A. Kerrey went over and sat at Desk C for a long while, and then a longer while. He spoke to the supervisor, who had no idea where Desk C was and told Kerrey, “Come back tomorrow.”

“You gotta be kidding,” Kerrey said, or perhaps yelled. It took 12 days to get his address changed.

I’ve heard far more serious VA horror stories ad nauseam in recent years. I know of at least one young Marine who committed suicide while waiting—months—for his medical records to be transferred from Los Angeles to Houston. I’ve also heard stories of heroic treatment performed by devoted VA doctors, nurses and counselors, but those often occurred after their patients endured a Kafka-esque struggle with the VA’s bureaucratic gate-keepers. You might expect that the system, which is staffed largely by older veterans, would have adapted with alacrity to the crisis posed by the wave of wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans over the past decade. But the VA’s response has been stagnation, and worse. It is now clear that there was a conscious, and perhaps criminal, effort to camouflage the time veterans had to wait for service in Phoenix and at other VA facilities. It is alleged that 40 veterans died waiting for service in Phoenix; whether or not that proves accurate, we’re facing a moral catastrophe.

The question is, How do we change this situation? The simple answer is leadership, which is why some have called (as I did last year) for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign. By all accounts, Shinseki is a fine man who has spent nearly six years lost in the system. An effective leader would have gone to Phoenix as soon as the scandal broke, expressed his outrage, held a town meeting for local VA outpatients and their families—dealt with their fury face-to-face—and let it be known that he was taking charge and heads were going to roll. Instead, Shinseki intoned the words “mad as hell” at a congressional hearing. And White House chief of staff Denis McDonough said the President was “madder than hell” about the situation. Does anyone actually find this convincing?

The President cares deeply about the troops; he visits the wounded in the hospitals all the time; it’s just not his style to make a public deal of it. But he has been sadly ineffective on the veterans–health issue. The benefits system is still rigged against recent veterans, who go to the end of the line with their claims. Five years ago, Obama promised a unified electronic records system so that a soldier’s medical history would follow him or her seamlessly from active duty to the VA, but it still hasn’t been implemented because of trench warfare between the Pentagon and the VA. More than a billion dollars has been spent on the project. A senior Administration official told me a year ago that a solution was weeks away; now the Administration is promising a new system by 2016. The President could have solved this problem yesterday, by cracking heads—and selecting either the existing VA or Pentagon electronic records system. (Believe it or not, the VA system is pretty effective but not up-to-date.)

The problem of bureaucratic stagnation at the VA (and throughout the rest of the government) could be addressed as well. Think about the lazy clerks Bob Kerrey faced. Why were they so callous? Because under the existing, antiquated civil-service system, they face practically zero threat of being fired. The President could ask for a temporary waiver of civil-service rules to clean up the mess at the VA, but that seems politically impossible. Government accountability is a popular mantra—but you can’t have accountability unless everyone, including Desk C, is held to account.

TIME White House

Adviser: Obama ‘Madder Than Hell’ About VA Scandal

President Obama is urging Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to fix issues in the VA's hospital system after his testimony last week before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee about reports that at least 40 veterans died while waiting for care at a Phoenix hospital

President Barack Obama is “madder than hell” about reports of long wait times that led to preventable deaths at veterans’ hospitals, according to a top adviser.

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said on Sunday on CBS’s Face the Nation that Obama is urging Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to “continue to fix these things until they’re functioning the way that our veterans believe they should.”

Shinseki himself used similar language last week when he testified in front of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee about reports that at least 40 veterans died while waiting for care at a Phoenix VA hospital.

“Any allegation about any adverse incident like this makes me mad as hell. I could use stronger language here, Mr. Chairman, but in deference to the committee, I won’t,” Shinseki said on Thursday.

Dr. Robert Petzel, the VA’s top health official, resigned on Friday. House Republicans have also scheduled for Wednesday a vote on legislation that would expand Shinseki’s firing power.

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